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Merkel-Hollande mission ends with promise of more talks

Erbil Basay | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

A last-ditch effort by Angela Merkel and François Hollande to prevent the Ukraine conflict escalating brought an agreement to restart four-way peace talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko.

But it was unclear if anything more concrete had been achieved, and the two western leaders left Moscow late on Friday without talking publicly.

The German and French leaders flew to the Russian capital a day after lengthy talks with Mr Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, in Kiev as concern grew in Europe over a flare-up in the war in the east of his country and an increasingly muscular debate in the US about the possibility of supplying Ukraine with weapons.

After more than five hours of talks, described by Moscow as "constructive", the Kremlin said work was under way to draft a joint document on how a ceasefire deal drawn up in Minsk in September, which has since broken down, could be implemented.

The three leaders and Ukraine's president would continue talks on the phone on Sunday, Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

The document "would include the Ukrainian president's proposals and proposals formulated and added today by [Mr] Putin", Mr Peskov said.

But commenting on the Moscow talks, Dmytro Kuleba, a Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted: "The headline is: 'Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and Hollande will call each other.' That's all you need to know about the state of regulating [the conflict]."

European diplomats and people familiar with Kremlin thinking said Mr Putin had made a proposal to draw a new line of separation ceding more Ukrainian territory to the Russian-backed separatist rebels than agreed in Minsk.

But European diplomats rejected the notion that the talks were based on a "peace plan" put forward by the Russian leader, insisting that the focus was on reviving the Minsk agreement.

A growing division between the EU and US on how to deal with the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine had earlier been laid bare by Joe Biden. The US vice-president poured scorn on any effort to reach pit tp Mr Putin, saying he had repeatedly violated all previous agreements to end the conflict.

"President Putin continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside and he absolutely ignores every agreement that his country has signed in the past and he has signed recently," the US vice-president said in Brussels.

Mr Biden is scheduled to hold a three-way meeting with Ms Merkel and Mr Poroshenko at the weekend in Munich, where European and US leaders are gathering for the annual Munich Security Conference.

Speaking at the conferencein before the Moscow talks, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, praised the latest effort from Berlin and Paris to strike a new deal with Mr Putin.

"We call on Russia to change course [and to] come back to compliance with the international commitments it has made," the alliance's chief said. "That is why the efforts by chancellor Merkel and President Hollande are so important."

Mr Stoltenberg warned that the west needed to be firm with the Kremlin, or risk long-term damage to Nato and the security of Europe.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's defence minister, said at the same conference that Germany strongly opposed escalating the conflict.

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"We are determined to show that the only place where a solution can be found is the negotiating table," she said.

"Economic sanctions are a very sharp sword. It is hurting Russia in the most vulnerable place. Defeating Russia with an army would cost many, many, many, lives."

The Minsk agreement envisioned a ceasefire between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, withdrawal of heavy weaponry from frontline positions held on September 19, halting inflows of arms from Russia by re-establishing Kiev's control over eastern borders and long-term measures to reintegrate the region by holding regional elections and granting more autonomy to the regions.

With separatists having gained more territory since September, they and Russia are in a push to renegotiate this agreement to formalise their control over recently captured areas.

Ukraines' currency, the hryvnia, weakened further after a torrid session on Thursday saw it slide almost 50 per cent against the US dollar, after the central bank in Kiev dropped interventions in the market to support the currency. The hryvnia fell another 2.9 per cent on Friday to 25 to the dollar.